The obvious take on the characters central to "Four Dogs and a Bone," John Patrick Shanley's scathing sendup of the movie business, is that they're some kind of subhuman life form. Ruthlessly ambitious, shallow, duplicitous--in short, your basic industry types. However, filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan, whose production of the play will inaugurate the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood when it opens there Thursday, sees them differently.
"Some people might look at these characters and find them reprehensible, but I feel sympathetic toward them," says the 46-year-old director during an interview at his Beverly Hills office. "And if people in the audience are honest with themselves, I think many of them will recognize bits of themselves in these characters. These people are weak in their way but they also have a relentlessness that's probably what keeps them going. Ultimately I see us all as part of the same ugly, weak, hopeful and loving family, because every universe--including the L.A. Times--has its little intrigues and battles," he tells an interviewer with a wry laugh. "If you transposed this story to The Times' newsroom, I don't think you'd have to change much--the cynicism certainly wouldn't be any less intense."
Premiering in New York in 1993 in a production starring Mary-Louise Parker, Tony Roberts, Polly Draper and Loren Dean, "Four Dogs" seems destined to take on a different spin in this production, presented as it is in the belly of the Hollywood beast. For one thing, Shanley's play, which runs through Nov. 26 and stars Elizabeth Perkins, Brendan Fraser, Parker Posey and Martin Short, will probably play to a fair share of industry insiders.
"Shanley directed the play in New York and his production was much more extreme in that it was bigger and less realistic," says Kasdan, adding that his staging of the play will attempt to evoke the claustrophobia typical of most location shoots, which force cast and crew to live in tiny trailers for months. "Shanley's production got spectacularly good reviews in New York and I'm sure the fact that it presents a view of Hollywood that New Yorkers like to have worked in its favor there. I'm trying to do something different with the play though, and I think people here will respond to it for different reasons.
"I'm trying to make these people recognizable human beings, and though there are plenty of Hollywood people whose image of themselves is so generous that they'll leave the play thinking, 'This has nothing to do with me,' there are also many people here who harbor no illusions about themselves. There are some very charming people in this business who can tell you with complete honesty exactly what they're capable of."
The cold-blooded sense of self-preservation endemic to the movie industry is unavoidable, Kasdan says, because it's a business thousands of people want to be in.
"The play is about how hard it is to get this work, and once you've gotten it, how hard it is to survive," he explains. "Most actors don't work and it's a very tough life. I acted in college--I wasn't very good, but that's not what made me give it up. I quit because I hated the fact that you can't do it unless someone lets you. It's terrible to be that out of control of your life, and out of that comes a real toughness or a real cunning--sometimes both.
"I've been lucky in my work in that I haven't been at the mercy of many people, largely because I had early success and I had very good mentors," says Kasdan, who began his career helping to write the screenplays for three of the most successful films of all time: "The Empire Strikes Back," "Return of the Jedi" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark."
Those hugely profitable screenplays paved the way for him to make his directorial debut in 1981, with "Body Heat," a beautifully nuanced homage to film noir. From there, Kasdan went on to direct several films including "The Big Chill," "The Accidental Tourist," "Grand Canyon," last year's "Wyatt Erp" and this year's "French Kiss." Obviously, he's built a solid career as a filmmaker, but he insists that despite that, he's wanted to do a play for years.
"I started out writing and directing theater at the University of Michigan," says Kasdan, who was raised in Morgantown, a coal-mining town in West Virginia. "I could never find a play I really related to, though, until I read this one, which I immediately felt was perfect for me. It's great for L.A., which was where I wanted to do a play, it's a very funny piece about something I know, and it has wonderful truths all through it.
"It remains to be seen whether I'm capable of directing a play, but I'm having a great time," he adds. "This work is really stimulating for me because it's so different from filmmaking. In directing a film, I'm working with actors' eyes, and if the actor flinches it's a big deal. Theater acting is completely different because you're playing to the front row as well as the back row, so the challenge is to achieve a level of reality but still get all the laughs.
"Theater is much more an actors' form than movies are," he continues. "In theater, actors get to try something new every night; moreover, it's a very organic form in that once the run is over it disappears into the ozone and lives on only in the memory of the people who saw it. In movies, the director is in control because no matter what the actors are doing, you can make them do it again, and you can edit. In theater, the audience sees everything, so the actors direct everyone's attention--it's a very democratic art form."
Kasdan is clearly keenly aware of the difference between stage and screen acting, so it's puzzling that he cast his play with actors primarily known for their work in movies. "I auditioned lots of people for these parts and as to why I cast people known as film actors--who knows," he says with a shrug. "I've had a life in the movies and maybe I'm drawn to a certain kind of acting. Whatever the reason, these actors seemed perfectly suited to my intentions with this play.
"My hope is that the audience won't write these characters off or condescend to them. Even though their behavior is outrageous, that those who see the play will feel yes, part of me is outrageous too, and there's something admirable in these people because you can't have a career in film, or anything else for that matter, without this kind of toughness.
"This isn't to imply that everyone has a price," he says. "The world is full of highly principled people, several of whom work in the movie business, and I believe there's a capacity for great good in people. Ultimately, however, life is about compromise, and our sense of what we know is right is constantly at battle with our desires."
* The Geffen Playhouse is located at 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. "Four Dogs and a Bone" opens Thursday. Tickets are $25-$35, $10 student rush , and are available at the Geffen Playhouse box office or by calling (310) 208-5454 or Telecharge at (800) 233-3123.